Well-being on demand? How technology is shaping mental health in the workplace

As organisations continue to respond to mental health needs in the workplace, technology is giving people what limited human resources can’t.
Bevan Rees
Jun 25, 2019

In my experience, conversations about mental health seldom come round to poker. The world’s most famous card game has traditionally been associated more with whiskey and drunken brawls than psychological wellbeing.

However, like Kenny Rogers’ gambler, Dr Audrey Tang is able to find wisdom in the deck.

“Poker players will say, ‘it’s easy to win when the cards are in your favour, but the skill lies in playing a bad hand well.’”

Tang is speaking to the need for employees to build psychological and emotional resilience – the quality that will enable them to manage growing demands and bounce back from failure.

Few individuals are born with the natural resilience needed to thrive and contribute in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times we live in. Teaching employees resilience and similar foundational capabilities has thus become a critical focus for most organisations, stimulating a rising awareness of mental health and its importance to human and organisational success.

However, the scale of the problem facing businesses is intimidating. In the UK, more than 300,000 people with a long term mental health problem lose their jobs each year. The annual cost of mental health to employers lies between £33 billion and £42 billion, with over half of the cost coming from presenteeism – when individuals are less productive due to poor mental health at work.

By now, these statistics are well-known. What is less clear is what to do about them. In the face of growing socio-political, economic and environmental disruption, challenges to mental wellbeing in the workplace are growing, not dissipating.

Are traditional learning and development approaches sufficient to deal with the problem? Does technology have a role to play? If yes, then what does that role look like?

Mental health in your pocket?

According to Dr Tang, the typical business approach to mental health is too reactive. She argues for a preemptive strategy that cultivates the vital skills employees will need when, not if, they are confronted with stress and overwhelm.

“Attending to wellbeing while the waters are calm can help reinforce and maintain a healthy positivity at work – which in turn supports performance.”

Nick Taylor, clinical psychologist and CEO of B2B mental wellbeing platform, unmind, agrees. A preventative approach, as is widely accepted in physical and dental health, he says, is key. Employees needs to be empowered by having access to information and resources that allow proactive cultivation of greater mental health.

However, when they do find themselves struggling they also need to be able to access the right care at the right time. Too often individuals only receive support once they have reached the stage of desperation.

“I’ve yet to come across an organisation who is not paying attention to mental health,” says Taylor. “I think what people are waking up to is the idea of prevention.”

Unmind’s offering is a scalable digital solution that provides employees with personalised mental health support. When an individual uses the platform she begins with the unmind Index, a clinically validated assessment tool, which gives her true insight into the state of her mental health.

Based on an assessment of wellbeing domains like coping, calmness, happiness, energy, and sleep, an employee is offered individually signposted content that assists him in maintaining or building greater mental health.

Through the same process, key stakeholders receive aggregated anonymised data that reveals mental health trends in the organisation. The information is segmented by, for example, region or business area, allowing the enterprise to constantly optimise its efforts and provide the care that people truly want and need.

Taylor regards this type of data as a cornerstone of future workplace wellbeing. “We’re going to look back in a hundred years’ time and be astonished that we were designing mental health strategies without data.”

Can technology deliver human health?

The last few years have seen the rise of AI mental health chatbots like Woebot and Wysa, as well as a multitude of applicat ions designed to track moods or teach meditation. The obvious question is, do they work? A Woebot study concludes that “Conversational agents appear to be a feasible, engaging, and effective way to deliver CBT.” But, with much of this technology still in its infancy, such claims will require further corroboration.

Headspring’s recent research on the impact of Artificial Intelligence in the workplace revealed mixed employee sentiments about AI, but consistently higher trust in human decisions over AI decisions. Is this symptomatic of a deep-seated human need to connect with other humans, or is it simply part of technological growing pains?

I asked Taylor if digital applications could really be used to improve human health.

“Mental health is not just an internal personal thing, it’s highly influenced by your bio-psycho-social life.”

“The digital world is already highly encroached into our mental health. We live in a digital world. It’s a really powerful way of using technology: giving people support wherever they are on the spectrum.”

The potential benefits, however, go way beyond ease of engagement. The scalable nature of digital solutions allows organisations to provide the right level of mental health support to many more people than ever before possible, in a highly personalised fashion. It promises to replace a dearth of resources with an abundance of real-time support resources.

“We don’t have enough resources to deal with mental health with traditional services. But it’s not just like we’re coming at this from a resource-rich perspective and adding digital on top of it,” says Taylor, “that’s far from the case.” He suggests that technology does not simply provide a delivery mechanism for psychological wellbeing interventions, it is an integral part of the solution itself.

A culture of healthy mind

Applications like Slack are creating virtual mirrors of the organisation. Kit Krugman, Chief Curator at co:collective, calls the General channel in slack the equivalent of an all-company meeting, bringing into play the same dynamics that impact psychological safety on the office floor.

The temptation with a digital interface is to believe that it creates a virtual space that further separates self from other. However, the opposite is usually true. Technology permits contact that can be experienced as being more direct, more personal and, paradoxically, more real.

Without a strong organisational culture this can pose risks to employee wellbeing. But, with the support of an informed culture, this extended reach can be used to accelerate gains.

Says Taylor: “A leading cause of stress can be your work environment, and therefore every effort should be made to provide a working environment that is facilitative of good mental wellbeing.”

“So, I think it is a moral responsibility and a logical business responsibility.”

Weaving together people and technology into a positive culture is an ongoing experiment that relies on the expertise of HR and L&D.

The vast majority, if not all, of the HR people Taylor speaks with are fully supportive and engaged in bringing better mental healthcare to people in the workplace. And, though, the ownership of the subject of mental health is unique to every organisation, improving mental health inherently involves learning and mental development.

Technology is already being used to better manage talent and improve L&D. However, in creating a psychologically healthier workforce, it may be the missing card needed to deliver a winning hand.